Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Melody of the Stars

Here's something off the normal path for this blog: music ratings. I frequently rate my digital music collection as I play it – click one of the five stars in Windows Media Player* to rate a song. For various reasons (mostly a combination of laziness and indecision), only about 20% of my collection is rated at this moment. Probably the best part of having a body of rated songs is the "five-star playlist" that is enables, which can be a really easy way to get a lot of variety and quality in a somewhat random (and always growing) playlist.

I did a survey of my ratings the other day and found this:

song ratings

The trend is clear: the part of my collection that is rated is skewed towards songs that I like a lot. On one level this makes sense. Why should my music collection contain songs that I don't like? Or does it mean that my rating scheme is skewed towards high ratings? Or that I'm more likely to rate a song that is four- or five-star worthy?

If I was being honest with myself, setting three stars as the true average rating, the rating distribution should be bell-shaped, with the peak at three stars. It’s too late to change now, but if Media Player ever loses my library, perhaps I’ll try the bell curve approach.

On my home PC, where there is tons of storage space, I keep the one-star songs around. But on my portable player (the highly flawed but usable Cowon D2 with 16 GB of storage), I've deleted them even though it can mess up the flow of an album (which I think is important, as the artists had a reason for putting the songs in that order). So songs that horrify me, like Aimee Mann's "She Really Wants You" on the uneven but often superb The Forgotten Arm, or “Matrimony” on Whiskeytown’s frequently amazing Faithless Street**, get the boot from my portable player.

* Of the three big music programs for the PC (Media Player, Real Player and iTunes), Media Player is by far my favorite and iTunes by far my least favorite. IMHO, iTunes has a horrible design and I find it almost unusable, which is surprising, given Apple's reputation for simple, intuitive design.

** One of my favorite songs from the album is the rollicking "Hard Luck Story," which includes lyrics that are hard not to love:

Well, I was thinking about a heading to Mobile, Alabama
And that was just last Saturday night.
I can leave you if I wanna, little baby and I'm gonna tonight.

Cause I got a bucket full of tears and a hard luck story
There's a bad moon rising behind
And I swore it to your daddy that I loved you, but I changed my mind.

Well, I'm a fast talking, hell-raising, son of a bitch
And I'm a sinner and I know how to fight
Well, I can leave you if I wanna, little baby and I'm gonna tonight.

(source: the very busy and animated website of

Random link from the archive: Buckwheat Noodles Baked with Savoy Cabbage, Potatoes, Cheese and Brown Butter

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The no-knead bread recipe saved my complicated sourdough bread

IMG_2569Last weekend, my complicated, high-maintenance bread baking project was saved by the ultra-simple no-knead recipe.

After a week of messy twice-daily sourdough starter refreshing, I was ready to bake some naturally-leavened bread. Although my past loaves have been lackluster – dense and a bit too sticky – I hoped that this time it would be different.

My starter seemed strong — resilient, lacy webs of gluten and a wonderful aroma — and I possibly had a breakthrough idea to improve the fermentation and proofing. This breakthrough was inspired by a post from Sam Fromartz at Chews Wise, which gave me the idea that my previous bread failures were caused by too-low temperatures during the rise and proof. The weather in Berkeley, my apartment's layout, and my attitude towards using the heater means that my apartment is generally in the low to mid 60s (Fahrenheit), while the best temperature for rising is in the mid 70s. So I rigged up a better rising place by putting some towel-wrapped warm bricks into a cooler, adding the container full of dough, then shutting the lid to obtain a cooler temperature in the mid 70s.

Alas, this good idea was hampered by mistake I made in the dough-making process. I chose to try a recipe from Maggie Glezer's Artisan Baking ("Thom Leonard’s Country French Bread") that involves giving the starter a final feeding the night before the dough mixing and kneading. Something went wrong, and the starter was too watery and seemed almost lifeless the day before. But since it had some bubbles and a good aroma (and since I wouldn’t get another chance to bake for another week), I kept going. Then, when I mixed and kneaded the dough, it was very soft, which was somewhat indicated by the recipe ("This should be a soft, sticky, and extensible dough"), and a previous experience with a soft dough where the dough seemed hopelessly soft yet the bread turned out fine (this was the ciabatta recipe in the same book, which I posted about previously and included a link to the recipe published by the L.A. Times).

But after hours of rising and several “turns",” the dough was still to soft to hold a shape. Should I give up?

Fortunately, the answer was "no," because when I was turning on the oven, I had an idea: use the baking technique in the famous no-knead bread recipe,* baking the loaf inside of a heavy, preheated pot, as the soft dough would be held in place by the wall of the pot.

When the oven and preheated pot were ready, I carefully slid out the rack and poured the dough into the hot pot. I put the cover on, slid the rack in again, and closed the oven door. About 20 minutes later I took off the lid and let it bake for 25 more minutes. In the end, it was a stunning loaf: perfectly shaped and with a deep golden-brown hue. Inside the loaf, however, although there was a good variation in bubble size, the bread was somewhat gummy (but still tasty when toasted).

I’m starting to think that I should always bake my bread in a pot. The method gives the loaf a gorgeous color, excellent crust and near-perfect shape. And I think I "owe it one," as it prevented my week of effort from going into the city green-waste bin.

Lahey my bread book cover * The no-knead recipe was created by Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and became a major trend when Mark Bittman wrote about it in the New York Times. Eventually Lahey used the technique as the basis of a book called My Bread: The Revolutionary No-Work, No-Knead Method.

Random link from the archive:Celebrating Election Day and Inauguration Day

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Cooking by the bible -- "The Flavor Bible,” that is

Flavor Bible Over the last few weekends, I've been trying something new to help me experience the flavors of the season or to use up extra produce: consulting a bible. This particular bible is The Flavor Bible , by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg*.

After a short introduction into how we taste and how chefs create successful flavor combination, the book lists ingredients alphabetically, with each ingredient followed by notes about its season, taste, "flavor weight," volume, typical preparation techniques, and by a list of compatible flavors. For example, the flavor list for bell peppers begins with “anchovies, anise, arugula, bacon, BASIL, bay leaf, …” (ingredients in bold or caps are especially recommended). In info boxes near some ingredient headings you’ll find comments from great chefs about the item and example dishes using the item.

It’s proving to be a useful tool for kitchen improvisations. The other night, for example, I had a leek and some pieces of winter squash that I wanted to use up. For the sake of simplicity, I settled on a soup. I sweated the leek in some oil for a few minutes, then added the squash, thyme and water. When the squash was tender, I blended it until smooth. That’s an OK soup, but a little dull, so I consulted the winter squash entry in the Flavor Bible and chose apple and gruyere as flavor boosts, cutting them into 5-10 mm dice and dropping the cubes into the hot soup just before serving. The Gruyere was a great success, holding its shape** in the thick orange soup and bringing its rich, sometimes pungent flavor in bursts. The apple was less successful, as the flavor didn’t come through as much as I’d like (perhaps a different variety would have been better). A recipe that approximates what I made is at the bottom of the post.

Another Flavor Bible experiment was less successful, in which I combined roasted rutabaga and cooked white beans with an herb-mustard vinaigrette (mustard and rutabaga were a recommended pairing). The flavors were too muted and I couldn't decide whether it should be a hot dish or room temperature one.

If you enjoy experimenting in the kitchen or need new ideas about what to do with the farmers market seasonal bounty, it's a great book to have around.

Recipe: Squash Soup with Gruyere and Apple

Cooking oil or butter
1 leek, washed thoroughly, quartered, and sliced
2 cups roughly chopped winter squash (like butternut or kabocha)
A few cups of water or stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Diced Gruyere cheese, 5 mm on a side
Diced apple, 1 cm on a side

Heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sliced leek, stir and cook for a few minutes, covered. Add the squash pieces and thyme and cook uncovered for a few minutes, stirring frequently. Pour in the water (or stock), raise the heat, bring to a boil, then cook, covered, over medium-low heat until the squash is tender. Puree with an immersion blender or in a blender (being careful about blending a hot liquid). Add salt and pepper to taste.

To serve, ladle the soup into a bowl and top with a spoonful each of diced cheese and apple.

* I’ve often wondered whether someone has written – or is working on – “The Bible Bible,” a tome that catalogs the myriad "bibles" that are in print. My cookbook shelf now has three bibles: The Flavor Bible and Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible and Cake Bible (she is also the author of The Bread Bible).

** The cheese near the rind of most aged cheeses is drier and ‘heartier’ than the center, so for this garnish it might make sense to used edge pieces instead of middle pieces.

Random link from the archive:Treehugger 100-Mile Thanksgiving Challenge

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